Yesterday morning was my last in El Paso. With a noon flight, I didn’t sign up for a shift at Casa Nazareth, the refuge for immigrant families where I’d volunteered the previous eight days. I stayed away from the kitchen, where I spent a lot of time helping prepare meals for an ever-changing population of guests.
The need was still there. The previous night’s 65 guests had to be fed and sent on their way to relatives across the country. New families – fresh from ICE detention – had to be prepared for. But other volunteers would do that. A trio of grey-haired nuns had just arrived from Ohio. A retired couple from California were in the office, arranging for volunteers to drive guests the bus station and airport. The out-of-work chef who volunteers to make breakfast every Wednesday was busy peeling potatoes and chopping ham in the kitchen with three other volunteers.
It was time, as they say, for me to let go and let God. God and what a long-time volunteer calls “the army of solidarity” that serves immigrants at Casa Nazareth and other sites operated by its parent, Annunciation House.
Of all the lessons I carry home from my experience at this border refuge, the combined power of faith and solidarity is the greatest. Day after day, volunteers with willing hands and open hearts feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give rest and comfort to the weary and fearful. Retired couples, college students and religious sisters well past retirement age stream to Casa Nazareth from across the country. New college grads dedicate themselves to serving poor immigrants for a year without pay.
A vast team of El Paso residents are the frame that holds up the enterprise, though. Local churches bring many meals. Local volunteers run the daily operation as shift supervisors. People who see a bargain at the grocery store buy extra for the shelter. As a Minnesotan living far from the southern border, I feel enormous gratitude and humility for their commitment and generosity.
We out-of-towners provide important relief and support. In return, we draw closer to the real face of our nation’s immigration crisis and can help change the story that’s being told. I also got to live and work with a remarkable group of women – funny, smart, energetic nuns in their 70s and 80s who have served the children of God for decades. I’ll write about that another day, including their example of how much we elders have left to give.
Thanks to the work of so many, small miracles seem to happen daily. On Tuesday, a team of students from the University of St. Thomas gave the kitchen a much-needed deep cleaning. Days earlier, a woman arrived with a huge pot of homemade chicken stew just before another ICE bus packed with hungry families arrived.
There are limits to this model of loaves and fishes. Volunteers fall sick and burn out. Cleanliness and order are transitory. With no easy way to wash dishes or recycle containers, we threw away bags full of Styrofoam cups and plates, plastic spoons and forks and other waste after every meal. With fluctuating numbers and volunteer cooks, food is inevitably wasted.
And while Annunciation House relieves the suffering of immigrant families who cross the southern border, it cannot address the violence and poverty in their home countries that cause them to flee. Nor can it budge the political impasse that keeps Congress from undertaking humane, practical and serious immigration reform. That’s up to the rest of us.